Charter school battle involves big money

The question facing Georgia voters Tuesday is fairly simple: Do they want to create an additional pathway to approve charter schools in the state?

The ballot language makes no mention of dollars, but billions are at stake. Which is why vast sums are being spent to promote and – to a lesser extent – to oppose the amendment.

Pro-amendment groups, including national school-choice advocates and for-profit charter school operators, have raised more than $2 million; amendment opponents have collected $123,243, mostly from public school officials, according to an analysis of campaign-finance records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With Republican Mitt Romney heavily favored to win Georgia’s presidential contest, the charter school referendum is the local race to watch Tuesday. Pro-amendment forces have mailers, billboards and a television ad campaign extolling educational choice. Opponents are hitting back with a racially-charged radio ad in which The Rev. Joseph Lowery says the proposal would “resegregate our schools.”

Critics say it has sowed confusion. The motto of the pro-amendment side is “Vote YES! for Public Charter Schools,” and the ballot language asks if the state constitution should be amended “to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” A minister and a teacher sued arguing the language is misleading.

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Mike Kwon, a 45-year-old Atlanta architect and martial arts instructor, cast an absentee ballot voted for the amendment but realized his error afterward when he chatted with friends by Facebook. He said he supports charter schools but favors less state involvement, not a new commission.

“I think I was totally hoodwinked by the (ballot) language,” Kwon said.

There are more than 100 charter schools in Georgia and two routes to establish them. Charter school applicants must first apply to the local school board. If the application is rejected, they can appeal to the state Board of Education, which may overrule the local officials. Which body approves the application affects whether a charter school receives local property tax dollars or not. Charters with either type approval receive state funds.

The amendment facing voters would create a third route for approval, an appointed state commission.

The issue has created an unpredictable mix of political alliances that make the outcome tough to predict. Prominent tea party activists have aligned with urban black Democrats and the state’s GOP school superintendent in opposing the amendment. On the flip side, many leading Republicans who frequently tout the virtues of local control are pushing for creation of a state commission that could provide a separate avenue for charter applicants.

It’s a fight that involves a huge pot of public dollars. State and local governments spend $13 billion a year to educate Georgia’s 1.6 million K-12 students. Charter schools are independent public schools that operate free of some state rules as long as they meet performance goals. They’re promoted as an antidote to poor-performing public schools.

The Georgia proposal has attracted dollars from stars in the school-choice movement. Deep-pocketed donors include Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton ($600,000) and StudentsFirst ($250,000), founded by ex-Washington D.C. School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, a leader in the push for teacher accountability.

Some of the large donors backing the amendment have ties to for-profit charter management companies. They include K12 ($100,000), the Herndon, Va-based company that manages cyber charter schools around the country; J.C. Huzienga, ($75,000) who founded Grand Rapids, Mich.-based National Heritage Academies, which manages charter schools including one in Atlanta; and Charter Schools USA ($50,000) in Fort Lauderdale, one of the oldest and largest for-profit operators of charter schools.

Some of the spending will remain secret. A separate effort by Brighter Georgia, a coalition of groups organized by the nonprofit Georgia Charter Schools Association, does not have to disclose its donors or how much it has spent. Brighter Georgia billboards have popped up around Atlanta, and its mailers have blanketed mailboxes. They stop short of asking recipients to vote for the amendment but lay out the benefits of it and of charter schools and look strikingly similar to the campaign mailers.

Tony Roberts, president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, declined to say how much the group is spending or provide a list of contributors. But, noting that 165 school districts in Georgia don’t have charter schools, he said an education effort was needed.

“We view this vote as a unique moment in time where the entire state of Georgia is focused on charter schools and the benefits these schools provide for students,” Roberts said in a statement.

Charters USA spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds said the group contributed to “show support to the parents and students we already have at our two schools in Georgia.”

The company operates schools in Cherokee and Coweta counties and fought with the Cherokee Board of Education when its application was initially rejected. John Truscott, a spokesman for National Heritage Academies, said it routinely supports ” efforts to expand school choice for kids.”

Bert Brantley, spokesman for Families for Better Public Schools, which has raised and spent the most among the pro-charter groups, said the big donations simply show the breadth of support.

“We are very gratified to have such broad support,” he said. “It’s really about giving every child an option.”

Those who oppose the charter amendment say they aren’t surprised by the heavy spending.

“This is money versus public schools. It is part of the privatization (of schools) effort. Everybody knows what this is about. It’s about the choice agenda and for-profit companies. There is big money to be made in schools,” Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said.

While opponents of the amendment have been heavily outspent, they’ve been accused of using taxpayer resources to make their case. State School Superintendent John Barge took a letter opposing the amendment off of the state education department website after an advisory ruling from state Attorney General Sam Olens cautioning officials against using public resources to campaign for or against the measure. Gov. Nathan Deal and leading state legislators have spoken out in favor.

A sizable chunk of the anti-amendment war chest comes from school officials in Gwinnett County, whose lawsuit challenging state-authorized charter schools was the spark for the current ballot fight. The biggest contributions are $10,000 from a top executive at Corus Group and $5,000 from one at Emtec, both companies that do business with Gwinnett County schools. Among the largest individual donations are $8,500 from Jeannie Henry, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, and $5,500 from Gwinnett Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks.

By the mid- to late-1990s, charters became the most popular “school choice” option for conservatives because the idea of handing out private school vouchers was politically problematic. Charters started by parents or businesses could both provide options and increase competition in education, driving public schools to improve, supporters said.

But Ben Scafidi, an education adviser to Gov. Sonny Perdue, said true start-up charter schools – as opposed to reconstituted public schools – started getting less support in Georgia school districts once lawmakers decided they should get similar funding as conventional public schools.

The amendment, he said, would make it easier to create the start-up charter schools that have been stifled by local boards.

“Charter schools have a wider appeal than other forms of school choice,” said Scafidi, an associate economics professor and education policy center director at Georgia College and State University. “For some people, school choice within the public system is something they are more comfortable with.”

The era of “accountability” – of report cards on schools and test-based performance standards that are more readily accessible to parents – has spurred the interest in school choice and charter schools over the past decade or so, Scafidi said.

“Before the accountability movement, I don’t think parents really knew about the quality of their children’s schools,” he said.

But it seems certain that school choice, a popular issue with Republicans in control of the state Legislature and the governor’s manions, isn’t going away anytime soon.

“If it doesn’t pass, one way or another, you will see an even stronger push for school choice,” Scafidi said. “I don’t know what direction that will take. I really think we are going to have a robust debate on expanding school choice over the next few years, no matter what happens on Tuesday.”

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